This study of selected Division III athletic programs at private colleges in the Midwest addressed the association between head coaches’ job satisfaction, assessed using the Minnesota Satisfaction Questionnaire, and perceptions of athletic directors’ leadership behavior, measured with the Leadership Practices Inventory. A statistically significant association was found between coaches’ perceptions of the athletic directors’ leadership and coaches’ satisfaction. No statistically significant association surfaced between the directors’ self-perceptions and coaches’ satisfaction. Additionally, to a significant degree, discrepancy between directors’ perceptions of leadership and coaches’ perceptions of leadership was associated with diminished job satisfaction. Top dissatisfiers were extrinsic factors, which included supervisory behavior. Recommendations include that athletic directors become attuned to how coaches perceive leadership, improving understanding between the groups concerning their discrete expectations for leadership behavior.

Perceived Leadership Behavior and Subordinates’ Job Satisfaction in Midwestern NCAA Division III Athletic Departments

Leadership continues to be a popular topic of analysis and debate. American culture has been obsessed with the development of future leaders as well as the enshrinement of successful leaders. The subculture of sport has long been viewed as a primary environment for the incubation and nurturing of tomorrow’s leaders.

If one supports the view that leadership behaviors can be learned, then the environments in which such learning takes place need to be explored. One suggestion is that, in all societies, successful leaders typically develop largely by first learning to be good followers. One cannot understand the processes of leadership in its many variations without examining the relationships leaders have had with followers (Clark & Clark, 1990). Within American culture, the bulk of sport participation decidedly falls to youth and young adults, while the organization and management of their sport events is handled by adults. For this reason, most examples of leader-follower dyads within sport involve an adult-child relationship that reflects an imbalance of power which diminishes the opportunity to willingly choose to follow. Clark and Clark (1990) commented that the few feeble attempts to incorporate leadership training in secondary-school curricula have been isolated in extracurricular activities. This line of thought can be extrapolated into an argument that sport within the educational system has as one of its purposes the provision of a training ground for the leaders of tomorrow (albeit an inadequate training ground). It could then be hypothesized that leadership training within sport encourages athletic administrators to take for granted the imbalance of power implicit in positional authority, which could lead to a leadership style that is authoritarian in the tradition of the benevolent dictator.

The processes characterizing selection of athletic directors is fundamental to the development of this research problem within sport leadership. Fitzgerald, Sagaria, and Nelson (1994) posited a work history, or an array of occupational experiences, typifying athletic directors. The normative career trajectory derives from sequentially ordered, common positions beginning with a single or fixed portal and culminating in a single top position. The profession of sport management is widely populated by those who have entered athletic administration through the player-coach-manager route. The sport manager is thus regularly assumed to have a “jock” mentality. Reinforcing this assumption as well as the normative career pattern have been such typical practices as selecting a retired coach to become athletic director, regardless of aptitude or training (Williams & Miller, 1983).

Fitzgerald et. al. (1994) concluded that, unlike most other occupations, the athletic director position has as its portal not a first job, but instead a significant, socializing, cocurricular experience, through which leadership and athletic skills alike were cultivated and a glimpse, at least, into collegiate athletic administration was provided. This socializing experience was found to limit leadership experiences, just as the normative progression through positions limits the types and styles of leadership experienced. The socializing experience may well occur in similar environments. That fact, coupled with the dearth of formal preparation in sport management, raises a question about athletic administrators’ understanding of situational leadership. Williams and Miller (1983) supported a thesis that athletic administrators have tended to come from the “university of hard knocks,” starting as coaches and teachers and finding themselves promoted to administration. Such a model returns us to the premise that, within the normative career pattern, the athletic director’s exposure to leadership prior to becoming a director always involved an adult-minor relationship dissimilar to the administrator/coach dyad. Few of today’s athletic administrators, particularly at the Division III level, have degrees in sport administration. On-the-job training and management by trial and error are considered typical preparation for the athletic director (Quarterman, 1992).

There have been almost as many different definitions and descriptions as persons who have attempted to define the elusive concept of leadership. An early description was given by Stogdill (1948), for whom leadership implied activity, movement, getting work done. The leader is a person in a position of responsibility coordinating activities of group members aimed at attaining a common goal. Stogdill also cautioned, however, that a distinction must be made between leader and figure head. While most definitions of leadership involve an influence process, there appear to be few other qualities common among the numerous definitions of leadership that have been proposed (Yukl, 1989).

Leader behavior theory holds that leaders are made, not born; it stands in contrast to leadership trait theory, which argues the opposite. As theorists from the two schools of thought debated the best leadership styles and traits, situational theorists—representing an outgrowth of behavioral theory—came to assert that the one-best-style approach to leadership ignores powerful situational determinants of leader effectiveness. As situations change, different styles of leadership can be effective (Bass, 1990).

Current social, political, and economic pressures require that athletic departments do more with less (Armstrong-Doherty, 1995; Snyder, 1990). Thus athletic departments may benefit from leadership that brings subordinates on board with a leader’s and organization’s vision and motivates them to pursue higher goals (Doherty & Danylchuk, 1996). Contemporary leaders must draw on many qualities to be effective, being at once visionary, willing to take risks, and adaptable to change. A leader must also exemplify the values, goals, and culture of the organization. Furthermore, contemporary leaders must emphasize the delegation of authority and pursuit of innovation. They must empower others, distributing leadership across all levels of the organization. The new leader is one who energizes people to action and transforms organization members into agents of change (Van Seters & Field, 1990).

Such a transformational leader asks followers to (a) transcend self-interest for the good of the group, organization, or society; (b) consider the longer term need for self-development over needs of the moment; and (c) achieve better awareness of what is really important (Bass, 1990). Transformational leadership thus refers to the process of effecting major changes in the attitudes and assumptions of organization members, building commitment to organizational mission, objectives, and strategies. Transformational leadership involves the leader’s influence on subordinates, but the effect of that influence is the empowerment of subordinates to transform the organization. Inherent bureaucratic authority differentiates transformational leadership from influence, and transformational leadership also stands in contrast to transactional leadership, or the motivation of followers through appeal to their self-interest.

Armstrong (1993) summarized the literature presenting the athletic director as the same general sort of leader as the successful coach and cited several qualities broadly held to help athletic directors administer effectively. Much of the early literature concerning leadership and the athletic director (Frost, Lockhart, & Marshall, 1988, Horine, 1985, and Jensen, 1988, as cited in Armstrong, 1993) appeared to focus on leader characteristics. The athletic director, it was emphasized, should have a vision for the department, should be comfortable taking risks, should be a consistent decision maker, and should be ambitious, reliable, fair, high-intensity, enthusiastic, and desirous of leading. One focus of leadership research within sport management has been early approaches to measuring leadership. To a large extent, leaders have been perceived as causal agents determining organizations’ success or failure (Soucie, 1994). Interestingly, Slack (1997) noted that the popular press continues to describe the leadership abilities of coaches and team managers in terms of the traits these individuals exhibit.

Again, sport management is to a great degree the domain of administrators who entered athletic administration through the linear sequence player to coach to manager. A study by Fitzgerald et al. (1994) found 94.5% of their administrator–respondents to have experienced such a career pattern. Cuneen (1992) pointed out how incongruous is the trend toward multi-million-dollar athletic enterprises being directed by individuals with little or no formal preparation in athletic administration. Because so few of today’s athletic administrators have degrees in sport administration, it seems reasonable to conclude that on-the-job training and trial-and-error management constitute the typical preparation of athletic directors (Quarterman, 1992).

In an extensive review of the literature on effective management of sport organizations, Soucie (1994) concluded one apparent consistent finding was that considerate-supportive behavior increases’ subordinates’ satisfaction. The job satisfaction of subordinate employees has long provided an outcome measure in leadership studies, dating back to the leader behavior studies emerging from the University of Michigan and Ohio State University. Employee satisfaction remains one of the most measured and most important and indicators of a leader’s impact (Wallace & Weese, 1995). Moreover, Kushnell and Newton (1986) concluded that leadership style is the significant determinant of subject satisfaction; participants were highly dissatisfied with leadership of an authoritarian style.

Yusof’s (1998) study of NCAA Division III institutions showed a statistically significant relationship between athletic directors’ transformational leadership behaviors and the job satisfaction of coaches. Yusof concluded there was a need for more transformational leaders in sport settings, since job satisfaction was positively associated with subordinates’ strong performance, relatively high productivity, low absenteeism, and low turnover. In addition, Lim and Cromartie (2001) suggested that ineffective leadership in organizations is a major cause of diminished productivity. Hater and Bass (1988) concluded that, although transformational and transactional leaders alike can practice a more or less participative method of decision making, transformational leaders appeared compatible with a better educated workforce. There can be little disagreement that a NCAA Division III coaching staff is a highly educated workforce.

Weese (1996) concluded that highly transformational leaders are likelier than other leaders to have strong organizational cultures and culture-building activities. Kouzes and Posner (1987) and Clark and Clark (1990) proposed that leadership behavior can be taught. If they are correct, then athletic directors who are taught transformational leadership skills should generate coaching staffs with relatively stronger performance, commitment, and job satisfaction.

Although coaches and athletic directors share steps on a normative career path, it does not follow that they share identical ideas about leadership in their own departments. Ideal leadership behavior may be viewed quite distinctly by coaches as compared to administrators. Athletic directors may well need to become more attuned to their staffs’ perceptions. Such awareness—an important tool for recognizing the pulse of a satisfied, peak-performing coaching staff—could be gained through formal and informal assessment methods. Again, athletic directors could be advised to be in touch with the perceptions of their coaching staff regarding the assessment of leadership behavior. Results of this study indicated an association between the extent of agreement of perceived leadership behavior and the coaches’ job satisfaction.

The present study data constitute feedback needed by athletic directors at non-scholarship colleges and universities. It is hoped that the findings may encourage them to develop their understanding of leadership behavior through formal training in sport management graduate programs and/or leadership seminars. The study findings should also encourage athletic directors to become more innovative, experimental, and communicative with their coaching staffs. The data suggest it can be useful to administrators to generate feedback from staff members concerning the application of leadership strategies within their organizations.


Athletic directors and selected head coaches at 30 private institutions in four Midwestern NCAA Division III athletic conferences were surveyed using instruments delivered by mail. To select the coaches, I first identified 4 men’s and four women’s sport programs at the institutions, then attempted to contact nearly equal numbers of male and female coaches staffing those programs. The coaches and directors were asked to complete 3 survey instruments: the Leadership Practices Inventory, Minnesota Satisfaction Questionnaire, and a demographic profile created by the author based on a precedent in the literature (Linam, 1999). The Leadership Practices Inventory (LPI) was developed, validated, and employed by leadership experts James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner (1997). The inventory consists of an LPI-Self instrument to be completed by a leader participating in the research, and an LPI-Observer instrument completed by people who directly observe and are influenced by that leader’s behavior. The Minnesota Satisfaction Questionnaire measures employees’ satisfaction with several aspects of their work environment. The questionnaire has the ability to measure intrinsic satisfaction, extrinsic satisfaction, and, most importantly, general satisfaction.


The demographic information gathered for the group of athletic directors appears to support the normative career pattern described in the literature. Of the sample, 85% had been collegiate athletes, and 85% had coached collegiate teams before becoming athletic administrators. Additionally, only 15% of the studied athletic directors reported that they held an academic degree in an administrative discipline. Assuming that those academic programs most likely to formally address the topic of leadership would fall somewhere within administration, a dearth of formal training in leadership can thus be anticipated for the administrators in this group.

The results of this study were in keeping with the literature, in terms of head coaches’ perceptions of leadership providing accurate assessment of supervisory leadership. However, no statistically significant association was found between how athletic directors assessed their own leadership behavior and how satisfied subordinate head coaches were with their jobs. Athletic directors should, therefore, be cautious about ascribing a high level of job satisfaction to coaching staffs, even if the directors make efforts to lead positively and considerately. What athletic directors do by way of serving the cause of perceived good leadership may in the final analysis have no meaningful association with satisfied coaches. On the other hand, the present findings did include a statistically significant association between how head coaches perceived the behavior of their leader, the athletic director, and how satisfied the coaches were with their jobs. For all five leadership behaviors covered by the survey instruments, in fact, this association was found to be significant. According to the results, the greater the discrepancy between an athletic director’s perceptions concerning leadership behavior and the director’s subordinate coaches’ perceptions of that behavior, the less likely the coaches were to report satisfaction with their jobs.

Discussion and Conclusions

The common assumption has been that participation in the coach-player dyad, including leader-follower experiences, prepares coaches to successfully apply leadership behaviors within administrator-coach relationships. The present research deemed this a false assumption: While the normative career pattern player-coach-administrator is normative, it is not sufficient. Studying leadership in NCAA Division III institutions, Armstrong (1993) suggested the possibility that many an athletic director does not know how to be a leader, having been chosen not for leadership ability but for an outstanding coaching record or simply longevity of service. Armstrong’s work is consistent with the idea of a normative career path, since many of the studied athletic directors are former basketball and football coaches whose leadership is behaviorally oriented. If most college athletic directors lack specific sport-management training; if their exposure to models of leadership has occurred strictly in the setting of extracurricular activities (Clark & Clark, 1990); and if that setting involved primarily the adult leader-youth follower relationship, there are at least three reasons to question the degree to which athletic administrators understand the functioning and value of other kinds of leadership, such as transformational leadership.


Many athletic administrators attain their positions by building on experiences as player, first, and then coach. Leadership training in the coaching ranks, or through the coach-player dyad, is thought to cultivate an autocratic style, given the obvious imbalance of power. Results of the present study indicate a positive association between head coaches’ job satisfaction and their perceptions about 5 behaviors associated with transformational leadership. Working from the premise that job satisfaction is a vital component in outstanding job performance and superior organizational effectiveness, athletic directors should have a strong interest in coaches’ perceptions concerning leadership behavior. Assuming leadership behavior can be taught (Kouzes & Posner, 1987; Clark & Clark, 1990), athletic directors who learn to be transformational leaders should foster more job satisfaction, stronger commitment, and better performance on the part of the coaching staff; at the least they should be able to reduce job dissatisfaction. Four specific recommendations arise from the research, as follows:

  1. Division III NCAA athletic directors should attune themselves to the coaching staff’s perceptions of leadership behavior in the department. The staff’s perceptions of leadership say more about their job satisfaction than does the director’s perception of leadership.
  2. Whenever an athletic director’s institution or professional organization conducts leadership training, the director should exploit the opportunity for professional development.
  3. Division III NCAA institutions should begin to include leadership behavior and ability as a criterion for selection of athletic administrators.
  4. Further exploration should seek directional causation within the leadership–job satisfaction relationship: Perhaps being very satisfied (intrinsically and/or extrinsically) with a job influences coaches’ perceptions of leadership, but perhaps, in an opposite direction, the way leadership is perceived influences job satisfaction. Research should settle the matter.


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Author Note

William J. Kuchler, School of Health Sciences and Human Performance, Lynchburg College, kuchler@lynchburg.edu; Lynchburg College, 1501 Lakeside Dr., Lynchburg, VA 24501. (434) 544-8475. Home email: doctorgolf51@hotmail.com

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